Politics & Government

Paper or plastic? That may not be your choice much longer at Wichita stores

Would you like some plastic with that fish?

Jessica Mounts, an aquatics ecologist and fisheries scientist, talks about the pollution caused by plastic bags and how it works its way into the human food chain.
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Jessica Mounts, an aquatics ecologist and fisheries scientist, talks about the pollution caused by plastic bags and how it works its way into the human food chain.

Paper or plastic? It’s not a choice you may have much longer.

Four women, including a fisheries scientist and a former City Council member, called on Wichita City Hall on Tuesday to ban single-use plastic bags at Wichita stores.

“Plastic bags are everyplace in our community and they are a hazard to our environment,” said former council member Lavonta Williams. “(We’re asking) that we put a task force together so we can look at the feasibility of putting a ban together.”

Williams said the familiar thin plastic bags are difficult to recycle and reusing them isn’t an answer either.

“Now I know that each of you has a place for your plastic bags in your kitchen or in your home (to) take the garbage out, or we use them to pick up poop as our dogs are traveling along the streets,” she said. “That’s not recycling because that same bag is still going to end up in the street, in the shrubbery and in the trash and end up . . . in our landfills.”

Jessica Mounts, an aquatic ecologist and fisheries scientist from Cheney, said the bags never really decompose in the environment, just break into ever smaller, even microscopic pieces.

“Even if it breaks down to the point that we can’t see it and it’s not clogging our storm drains, the plastic still persists in the ecosystem,” Mounts said. “While they’re tiny and they’re not necessarily noticed by the human users of our waterways, microplastics retain their chemical properties and never completely biodegrade. Plastics have found their way into all of our soils and our water supplies and they’re impossible to remove once they’re in place.”

That’s a problem because plastic can leach potentially harmful chemicals into drinking water supplies. Also, fish consume the plastic — mistaking it for a food source — and the chemicals can concentrate in their bodies and transfer to people who eat fish.

Two states, California and Hawaii, have banned single-use plastic bags and require stores to charge for paper bags. About 400 cities and counties across the country have similar bans.

Both Walmart and Dillon’s — which make up the majority of Wichita grocery sales — have committed to long-term plans reducing the amount of plastic waste from their stores.

Several stores have already gone bag-free in Wichita including Aldi, Costco, Sam’s Club and Whole Foods, according to a list presented to the council Tuesday by environmental activist Lori Lawrence. She also distributed copies of a letter by the Sierra Club supporting the ban.

Jane Byrnes, also an environmental activist, said according to national estimates, the average family of four in America uses almost 1,500 plastic bags a year, 23 million when extrapolated out to the population of Wichita.

“My children don’t even want my heirloom china. Why should they have to deal with my leftover trash?” she said.

The four women spoke during public comments, so no action was taken Tuesday. But during and after the meeting council member Brandon Johnson and Mayor Jeff Longwell indicated that they would be interested in having further discussion on the subject at a future meeting.

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